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Atlanta’s Julian Gressel making strong impression as ROTY candidate

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In the United States, U.S. Men’s National Team star Christian Pulisic continues to make waves overseas after forgoing college and the opportunity to play in Major League Soccer.

While his case is a bit different, one of Atlanta United’s young stars has taken a path less traveled, but is finding similar success in his first season in MLS.

Julian Gressel was drafted in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, after boasting a strong college soccer career with Providence. The 23-year-old finished second all-time in school history in goals, while making a strong name for himself on the American soccer scene prior to being drafted in January.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan considering U.S. Soccer presidency run ]

Pro Soccer Talk had the chance to catch up with Gressel as the Atlanta rookie and his side prepare for their final match of the regular season before the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It definitely helped because you get competitive games in and obviously also get national recognition from within the college system from playing in a big conference and going to a good school like Providence,” Gressel said in regards to playing in the Big East — one of the traditional power soccer conferences. “We made it really far in the NCAA tournament as well so it wasn’t just the Big East. The conference usually has three, four, sometimes five really good teams that make it to NCAAs, so it really helped me develop as a player.”

Although it’s become a common path for players not just in Germany, but throughout Europe and other prominent soccer regions, to pursue a professional career without much schooling beyond high school, Gressel opted to better himself both on and off the pitch.

“It was mostly school that was just a way for me to have a chance to do something after soccer,” Gressel said. “In Germany, I probably would’ve had the chance to play in the third or fourth division. Possibly 2.Bundesliga, but I only had a high school degree and I didn’t want to leave it at that.

The first-year MLSer finished with a degree in business management at Providence.

Gressel plied his trade with several smaller German sides prior to his arrival in the U.S., including FC Eintracht Bamberg of the Landesliga Bayern-Nordwest in Germany’s sixth-flight.

Like many other players that weren’t accustomed to following MLS across the pond, Gressel wasn’t certain what the league would bring for him, however, he didn’t buy into any misconceptions about it.

“I honestly didn’t follow MLS before coming here,” Gressel said . “As I came here my roommates and I started watching games basically every weekend and I also got to go to Gillette Stadium as a freshman to get my first live game with the Revolution.

“That experience gave me a bigger look at the league and then I figured out more about MLS as time has gone on and I’ve spent more time in the United States.”

“I always knew it was a difficult league and there were too many misconceptions overseas that the speed of play is slower in MLS and other things like that. I wanted to experience it [MLS] myself first before making an assessment.”

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With one match remaining in the regular season, Gressel has tallied an impressive five goal and nine assists, while starting 23 matches for Atlanta.

Gressel will surely be in the running for Rookie of the Year, along with Minnesota forward Abu Danladi, Jack Elliott of the Philadelphia Union and others. However, it has been Gressel’s ability to put together a complete season that really separates him from the pack.

The first-year attacking player has shown his technical ability throughout his rookie campaign (as seen in the video below), but Gressel believes that while he does exhibit a fair amount of composure, that it also helps playing alongside budding stars like Miguel Almiron and Atlanta’s top goalscorer, Josef Martinez

“It helps having the guys on my team that I get to play around as well,” Gressel continued. “Miguel [Almiron] and Josef [Martinez] are some of the guys that help elevate my game on a weekly basis. And you never want to be the one that lets your team down so that’s always another motivational factor. You don’t want to play that bad pass that breaks down an attack.”

In addition to being the beneficiary of playing with good teammates, Gressel has had the opportunity in his first season to play under one Gerardo “Tata” Martino — widely regarded as one of the top-tier managers around the world.

[ MORE: D.C. United’s Bill Hamid exploring European options ]

Most are aware of his time at Barcelona, but Martino’s expertise goes beyond that — including managing the Paraguayan and Argentine national teams.

To Gressel, it’s no surprise that Martino’s name has gained some traction as a potential boss for the USMNT following Bruce Arena’s decision to leave the Americans last week.

“I think he’s a great manager,” Gressel told PST. “He has great ideas tactically. He’s definitely the best I’ve ever seen or had the opportunity to work around. I haven’t been around so long, but tactically he has ideas that I never would’ve imagined and then they end up working. He’s one of the greatest coaches out there.

“It’s no secret that he’s had success with other national teams beyond just performing well at the club level. To have this rumor out there it’s pretty clear that people view him highly. I’m not sure how well he’d work because of the language barrier, which doesn’t help.

“It’s up to U.S. Soccer at the end of the day, but I hope he stays with me and the guys here for longer because I learn so much every single day.”

Mourinho delighted to have “engine of the team” Pogba back

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One takeaway which has been made 100 percent clear — in case the first four games of the season weren’t enough — is this: Manchester United are, in every way imaginable, a different team when Paul Pogba is on the field.

[ RECAP: Pogba’s star (re)turn lifts United past Newcastle ]

Pogba returned to action on Saturday and paced Man United to a 4-1 thumping of Newcastle United. After the game, United manager Jose Mourinho wasted little time in pointing the finger as Pogba, acknowledging he’s the player that makes the Red Devils tick — quotes from the Express:

“Paul Pogba is different class. Paul and Nemanja Matic grew up together at the start of the season and are the engine of the team. It was in Paul’s hands, how many minutes to play until he began to feel fatigued. It was a great performance from him.

“I know that strikers depend on goals for confidence and happiness. I was really happy to see him score his goal.

“We go match to match — we can only play Manchester City twice in a season. In those games we will try to take points — outside of those fixtures we are not in control.”

As for another returning superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that he returned from a torn ACL in just seven months. The original period for recovery was pegged at nine months.

“I am pleased for the three three points, the quality of our performance after Newcastle’s goal, that mentality to react without panic and in a positive way, and obviously the return of injured players is always nice, especially in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s case. His was such a dramatic injury. To see him back is a great emotion”

The gap between United and City is currently eight points, but 26 games remain. There is time, but Mourinho’s men can afford to drop very few points the rest of the way.

Man United 4-1 Newcastle: Pogba’s star (re)turn

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  • Red Devils fall behind early
  • Pogba’s return: goal, assist
  • Gayle’s goal, Yedlin’s assist
  • Martial, Smalling flip the score before HT

It was like Paul Pogba hadn’t been away for even one day of the last 10 weeks, as the French superstar returned from a hamstring injury and inspire Manchester United’s 4-1 victory over Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Zlatan Ibrahimovic also returned from the torn ACL he suffered in April, making his first appearance in seven months — two months ahead of schedule — as a 77th-minute substitute.

Saturday’s rout wasn’t always straightforward and easy for Man United, as the final score might deceive.

Newcastle struck first in an action-packed, goal-filled first half. U.S. national team right back DeAndre Yedlin tallied his first assist of the PL season, as he sped to the end line and cut a low cross toward the penalty spot, finding the late-arriving Dwight Gayle for a gentle finish

The lead lasted 23 minutes, until Pogba marked his return to action with a delightful assist for Anthony Martial‘s equalizer. Pogba danced past Isaac Hayden, raced toward the end line and floated a delicate ball to the back post, where his compatriot headed home.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Right on the stroke of halftime, United went 2-1 up after Chris Smalling headed home Ashley Young‘s lofted cross to the back post. Smalling remained forward after a short corner Young acres of space to pick his head up and hit the right ball.

United required only nine minutes to double their lead, and it was Pogba, once again proving his worth to the side, who got the goal. Romelu Lukaku floated a cross to Marcus Rashford at the back post, and Rashford’s cushioned header dropped the ball into no-man’s land. Pogba reacted quickest. 3-1. Pogba’s back, and so is United’s swagger.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Seconds after Pogba was subbed — without incident — Lukaku pounced on Florian Lejeune‘s botched clearance inside his own penalty area and slammed a left-footed shot past Robert Elliot.

As exciting as the performance and result were, it was only enough to keep United on pace — eight points back — with Premier League leaders Manchester City, who also won on Saturday.

Jurgen Klopp hails “perfect day” for Liverpool

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Jurgen Klopp has had far from an ideal week but his Liverpool side ruthlessly dispatched Southampton at Anfield to end it on a high note.

[ MORE: Liverpool batter Saints ]

Klopp was sent to hospital earlier this week when he felt unwell but the German coach was given a big boost as Mohamed Salah scored twice in the first half, which included a stunning opener, and Philippe Coutinho finished Saints off in the second half as the Reds eased to victory and stayed in touch with the chasing pack behind runaway leaders Manchester City.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, Klopp was happy with what he saw from his side after he was fit enough to be on the bench on Saturday.

“Difficult game, Southampton are a really good football side. It was an open game, we had more chances before we scored. We need to be patient in a lively way,” Klopp said. “The first goal, wow, I have nothing to do with the goal and the second was a fantastic pass and Mo Salah makes great runs. We could have scored more often but it was a perfect day for us.”

Klopp, 50, sees his side just three points off second place after 12 games of the Premier League season, while his side remain firm favorites to qualify for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16.

So far, so good.

Yes, Man City will take some catching (and a collapse of their own) but Liverpool’s aim should be to secure a second-straight top four finish and go from there.

With Sadio Mane, Salah, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in the form they showed on Saturday, plus a fifth clean sheet in six PL games this season at Anfield, the defensive woes Klopp’s team have faced away from home this season aren’t troubling them at home.

Next up is Chelsea at home for Liverpool, which will be a supreme test of their newfound defensive solidity at home. Their results against title contenders this season have been up and down with a draw against Manchester United, hammerings at Tottenham and Man City and a thrashing of Arsenal at home.

Liverpool’s clash against top four rivals Chelsea is followed by five winnable games before they travel to Arsenal on Dec. 22.

Between now and then we will see if Liverpool’s season will amount to more than just a top four challenge. Saturday’s shellacking of a lackluster Southampton may have been “perfect” but a much tougher test awaits next week against a rejuvenated Chelsea side who have Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard purring in attack

Can Liverpool’s oft-fragile defense cope? We are about to find out.

Burnley’s Barnes: “Can we finish the season now?”

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Ashley Barnes broke his season duck in classy fashion, scoring and adding an assist as Burnley stayed in the thick of the race for Europe with a 2-0 win over Swansea City at Turf Moor on Saturday.

[ RECAP: Burnley 2-0 Swans ]

The win shouldn’t be a surprise, as Burnley is humming in style. The Clarets entered the day with a win at Chelsea and draws at Liverpool and Spurs, so why would a visit from Swansea lead to anything than three points.

It’s dream world, really.

From the BBC:

“We’re on a fantastic run. We’re working hard every day and today we were different class.

“Can we finish the season now? No, I’m kidding. there’s still a long way to go and we need to pick up as many points as possible.”

Every win makes more and more believers of the Burnley Football Club. Perhaps more important to the Clarets, each win makes it less likely that Sean Dyche will leave the club for a better gig (Everton), at least right now.